Venice has lost its soul. Newer residents, in their multi-million dollar homes and fancy cars, might not even know what that means. But those who are “on the bus,” or even in the vicinity of the bus, know that Philomene Long has left this world, and with her goes the heart of a community.
Philomene officially became Poet Laureate of Venice in 2005. She was the official unofficial Poet Laureate of the Mirror as well. As I sit here, struggling about what to say about this supreme individual, I can’t help but laugh, as I haven’t been writing much lately, yet Philomene – even in death – is forcing me to write. My former writing teacher just won’t take no for an answer. She was a tremendous writer and poet, a tremendous friend and teacher, and an even more tremendous human being. God broke the mold when he created Philomene, and you can be assured none like her will ever pass our way again.
As Beyond Baroque’s Fred Dewey said, “There was never anyone like her and there will never, ever, ever be again.”
Philomene was life, love, mother, sister, grand dame, poet, wife, legend, queen – the list could go on and on.
Following is a piece about Philomene from 2002 and a remembrance by Mirror Staff Writer and poet Lynne Bronstein, who first met Philomene many years ago.
The Beat Queen of Venice
Laurie Robin Rosenthal
Greenwich Village native and Venice legend Philomene Long wrote her first poem at age eight: “When my duck died…a turtle took a snap at its neck.” Unfortunately for the duck, but fortunately for the world of poetry, a poet, the future Beat Queen of Venice, was born. This event also turned Philomene into a lifelong vegetarian.
Considering the world into which she was born – Greenwich Village in the 1940s was filled with artists and writers and musicians and was exploding with creativity – it’s no wonder she became drawn to the Beatniks, after a stint as a nun.
Beat legends Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, whose world Philomene would later join, as well as artists Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning, were but a few of those laying the groundwork for the Beat explosion (in the neighborhood where she lived) that would forever change the world, and continue to influence Philomene to this day. A huge Kerouac fan myself, I was interested to learn from Philomene that he took notes everywhere he went. She also has kept many answering machine messages over the years and has remarked that people leave messages that sound like their writings, such as Ginsberg’s long, flowing poetic musings.
While in high school Philomene truly became a poet, and all she had to say was, “Mamma, I have a poem in me” and she was allowed to stay home and write. “I never stopped writing poems after that. I could not stop. My belly was full of poems.” Decades later, Philomene still stays home and writes, in her apartment near the Boardwalk in Venice. Until his recent death, Philomene lived a very Zen-like existence with her husband, poet John Thomas. They took “a vow of simplicity,” and spent their time together writing, reading, contemplating life, usually within five feet of one another. During their limited time apart, they both taught writing and poetry. Philomene was my writing teacher at UCLA several years ago, when you could sit on campus before class and enjoy a bit of solitude. Now, with the proliferation of cell phones and people talking loudly on them, Philomene bemoans that “I can’t find any place at UCLA where I can be alone with my Jamoca Almond Fudge.”
Recently, I found out something about Philomene that, for some inexplicable reason, really surprised me. She’s a big-time Laker fan. I mean the kind of fan who yells at the television. Philomene takes time out of her never-ending writing schedule to watch her team, and now with the championship series coming up I suspect in the next week or so her focus will be more on Kobe and Shaq than creating new poems, though with Philomene you never know. She may be inspired by the antics of her favorite team, and come up with a set of poems about the beauty of the players soaring through the air.
Currently, Philomene is busy working on publishing many of John’s poems. A CD of John reading his poems written for Philomene has recently been released. Philomene plans to answer each poem with a poem, no matter how long the process takes. Though she spends most of her time in the apartment she shared for so many years with John, feeling the presence of her beloved husband, she has been comforted by the outpouring of love and kind words she has received from around the world since John’s death. Preserving his legacy is important to her, whereas I don’t think she gives much consideration to her own place in poetry history. She will continue to write to expand her own consciousness. “I see poetry as the way of opening the eye to the nameless. Poetry is for wisdom.”
Remembering Philomene Long
I knew Philomene first as part of the team (with her then husband Jay Kugelman) who put together the amazing marathon reading of “The Alexandria Quartet” by Laurence Durrell for KPFK. This was something one could do with radio that was creative and crossed boundaries and had nothing to do with ratings and hits.
Then I met Philomene and through her l learned about the Beat poets of Venice, the legendary Stuart Perkoff, whose memory and legacy of work she kept alive, and poets who were still alive and writing, like Baza and Frank Rios. And John Thomas who became her husband. They seemed an odd but perfect couple.
There was the Philomene who created a film about the Beats, with footage of Perkoff on Groucho’s “You Bet Your Life,” and there was the Philomene who introduced herself to potential students at a UCLA Extension Open House by reading her poetry to them. There was the dramatic “Beatnik Nun” with long dark hair who read her poetry in a deep, mysterious, crackling voice. Not a nun; she was the real version of a Good Witch.
I last saw her two months ago, casting that spell to an audience at the Skirball auditorium on the night her retirement from UCLA was honored.
Not to be retired from activity in the arts world, Philomene gave Gerry Fialka the inspiration for creating the Ms. Beatnik Contest, held in July and, I am sure, to be held hereafter in her honor and memory.
“There is no road. We take it.” –Philomene’s True or False Quiz for Ms. Beatnik contestants.